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Greece proceeds with New Acropolis Musuem, despite the absence of the main exhibit

Greece is proceeding with the construction of a new museum to house the Parthenon Sculptures, despite the fact that the British Museum is showing now signs of relenting in their attempts to keep the contested artefacts in their collection.

United Press International [1]

The Art World: Pesky Parthenon marbles
From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 12/19/2002 11:50 AM

NEW YORK, Dec. 19 (UPI) — Greece is blithely going ahead with the construction of a new $87 million Acropolis Museum in Athens centered on a huge exhibition hall for the display of the Parthenon marbles, most of which are owned by the British Museum and not likely to leave London at any time in the near future.

Not since the late actress Melina Mercouri was Greece’s famously nagging culture minister has the British Museum been under such pressure to surrender possession of the so-called Elgin Marbles, brought to England by British diplomat Lord Elgin to insure their safety during the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Turks. The British Museum bought the collection of sculptures from Elgin in 1816.

Only last month, the present Greek Culture Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, was in London prodding British Museum Director Neil MacGregor to at least loan the Elgin marbles to the Acropolis Museum in time for its scheduled opening in August 2004 as part of the cultural panoply surrounding the Athens Olympic Games. Venizelos got “no” for an answer.

According to insiders, Venizelos offered the following deal to MacGregor and British Cultural Secretary Tessa Jowell: You can keep possession of the Elgin marbles if you offer them to Greece as a permanent loan, in return for a series of exhibitions of outstanding Greek antiquities at your museum in London. Also, you can have some control over display of the marbles at the Acropolis Museum.

Venizelos would seem to be asking for the impossible. For one thing, there are almost insurmountable legal barriers to the British Museum’s de-accessioning such treasures as the Elgin marbles, one of its biggest draws. For another thing, Elgin bought the marbles in good faith from the Turks, who then ruled Greece and were hugely responsible for their ruinous condition.

After Venizelos returned to Athens with his tail between his legs, the British Museum issued a statement claiming itself as the “best possible place for the Parthenon sculptures to be on display to 5 million visitors a year, entirely free of entry charge; here the world-wide significance of the sculptures can be fully appreciated among a select group of key objects that are indispensable to the museum’s core function — to tell the story of human cultural evolution and civilization.”

There is no reason why the Greeks should not do with plaster casts of the Elgin marbles or laser-cut facsimiles that could be mixed in with other Parthenon marbles that have remained at the Athens site. But Venizelos, in an intransigent mood, said he would order gaps be left in the Acropolis Museum display where the Elgin marbles should be “as a constant reminder of Britain’s unfulfilled debit to world heritage.”

“It simply would not be appropriate to integrate casts with originals,” he is quoted as saying.

The foundations of the new museum are now being built on a slope of the Acropolis hill that has been cleared of archaeological remains. The building has been designed by a New York-based architect, Bernard Tschumi, as the result of a series of four competitions. Tschumi said the Parthenon Gallery will be a glass box to allow viewing of the marbles in natural light with a panoramic view toward the Parthenon in the background.

The gallery will be large enough to allow the Parthenon frieze sculptures to be displayed in the same way as they were originally seen on the exterior of the temple, according to Tschumi.

Although the sculptures in the British Museum are major figures from the East pediment of the Parthenon that was partially destroyed when the temple was converted into a Christian church in 500 A.D., the Greeks still have figures from the West frieze that was shattered by a Turkish gunpowder explosion in 1687. These were badly restored about 100 years ago and have been in storage since 1993.

Sculptures removed from the from West pediment were removed to the old Acropolis Museum in 1993 and are currently on display in nitrogen-filled glass cases to preserve them from air pollution. Athens is notorious for acidic pollution related to modern traffic that is eroding other sculptural adornments that remain in position on the Parthenon’s exterior in panels known as metopes.

Returning the Elgin marbles to Athens would not only submit them to danger again, but it would endanger the collections of the great museums of the world that are doing their best to preserve the entire scope of humanity’s common cultural heritage in the true spirit of internationalism.

The British Museum already has promised eight great Greek vases depicting Olympic competition to the National Museum in Athens for the 2004 Cultural Olympiad as the first of “many collaborative ventures in the future.” Let that be enough to satisfy the Greeks. It’s about time to stop ranting about “stolen treasures” that are actually the fallout of history for which there is no fair or plausible restitution.